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A sympathizer of chavismo holds a flag and a Hugo Chávez doll while participating on the march commemorating the 24th anniversary of the February 4, 1992 coup. Photo credit: Oswaldo González. Source: Ministry of the Popular Power for Communes and Social Movements, Bolivarian Government of Venezuela

As I was doing some online research for a manuscript that will be sent to a peer-reviewed journal, I came across with the news that Venezuela observed the 24th anniversary of the even that made Hugo Chávez a household name: the military coup that he led in February 1992. The Bolivarian spin machine made sure that the significance of that event, as they see it, was not lost on anyone (my translation):

With joy and patriotic sentiment, the revolutionary people commemorated this Thursday, February 4th the 24th anniversary of the civic-military rebellion [..].

This commemoration began on February 4th, 1992, when Chávez, along with a group of military patriots and sectors of the people, initiated the struggles against the policies that favored oligarchic sectors and harmed the Venezuelan people.

In that context, the date represents the popular insurrection against neoliberalism and the capitalist system that devoured the resources of the nation.

[…]

It is important to highlight that this act of patriotism and gallantry was declared Day of National Dignity because it is considered one of the most transcendental events in Venezuelan history.

Every country can establish as many of these big days as it wants and justify them as it wants, so long as the explanation makes sense. But at a moment when the Venezuelan economy is in unquestionable shambles and the opponents of chavismo have made it all the way into becoming legislative majority, this particular commemoration has all the trappings and feel of a rally-around-the-flag ploy, conveniently set up to prop up the strained morale of chavistas and make everybody forget that things are just not good. Chavismo continues to be under siege even if it also continues to have the lion’s share of political power and a military that is unabashed about being ideologically pliant. Every time President Maduro insults those who do not agree with him, he gives Donald Trump a run for his billions.

I have always thought that the Venezuelan people (or rather, that 59% of valid votes for president in 1998) cannot be blamed for bringing Hugo Chávez to power. He was a product of the circumstances. In general terms, Venezuelans in February 1992 lived under a political system dominated by Acción Democrática (AD) and Comité de Organización Política Electoral Independiente (COPEI) – two political parties that were practically indistinguishable ideologically, increasingly unrepresentative, and too willing to turn the other way rather than to crack down on corruption. The system, known by scholars as puntofijismo (named after its constitutive agreement, known as Punto Fijo Pact) was also fueled by oil revenues that were heavily spent on what was essentially a large welfare state, so by the early 1980s, when oil prices plummeted and the foreign debt crisis of 1982 began, the economic panic button was pressed. AD and COPEI governments tried to remedy the situation with neoliberal measures such as a sharp currency devaluation (the notorious Venezuelan “Black Friday” of 1983) and spending cuts, but their unpopularity contributed to discredit the parties further and led to the 1989 street riots known as “Caracazo,” as well as 5,000 more demonstrations in the following three years. Meanwhile, Hugo Chávez found time from his duties as an army lieutenant colonel to become a full-time conspirator and organize, along with other like-minded officers, the February coup, partaking from the generalized sentiment against puntofijismo.

What is interesting is that Chávez took his time in embracing socialism, so one can only wonder how much of a “popular insurrection against neoliberalism” the February coup was. Gregory Wilpert suggests that Chávez did not decisively declare himself a socialist until 2005, and before that (including his 1998 presidential bid) his leftist inclinations were vague. Also, according to Heinz Sonntag, the circle of military conspirators who orchestrated the coup were less interested in socioeconomic revolution than in a purely political revolution (as in radically changing state institutions). By the same token, Michael Coppedge argues that the main goals of the February coup were to remove the elected but detested government, end impunity, and rekindle prosperity – goals widely shared among Venezuelans at the time. None of them, however, indicate the type of socioeconomic change advanced by 21st century socialism (as a matter of fact, two of Chávez’s co-conspirators, Yoel Acosta and Jesús Urdaneta, eventually distanced themselves from him once he embraced socialism). Coppedge also presents an interesting argument: ordinary Venezuelans got morally outraged because they were paying the consequences of corrupt adecopeyano politicos plundering oil profits and running the economy to the ground. Venezuelans did oppose neoliberalism violently, but Coppedge suggests that it was because of the timing of the measures, since the economic crisis was not deep enough for Venezuelans to adopt a “wait-and-see” stance. After 1992, says Coppedge, when a non-adecopeyano government implemented more neoliberal policies to reverse a more prolonged crisis, there was no second “Caracazo.” In any case, it seems reasonable to think that neoliberalism was opposed in 1989 because it deepened an economic crisis that should not have happened in the first place, not because of anything inherently reprehensible about neoliberalism itself. In this sense, February 4th has more in common with the traditional Latin American coup (i.e. the military stepping in to save the country from its inept civilian rulers) than with a crusade against neoliberalism. And finally, forgotten by the current powers-that-be in Venezuela, is the fact that a second military coup was carried out on November 27, 1992.

These statements do not intend to rehabilitate puntofijismo. If anything, they echo Jennifer McCoy’s thoughts on the dangers of over-institutionalization: the old parties grew so attached to their traditional ways that they could not – or perhaps did not want to – see the writing on the wall and adapt to a changing society, new demands, and new political actors. In turn, this story does not justify anything that Chávez, Maduro, and their respective governments have done until now.

Maduro and his fellow chavistas did not come up with a tall tale. It just needs to be told without all the ideological exaggeration.

PS: As a way to show that history repeats itself, especially to those who do not learn from the past, President Maduro has decreed the same currency devaluation implemented by adecopeyano governments. Most astoundingly, on a televised 5-hour speech, he expressed his hope that the people would understand his decision, alluding to the “Caracazo” – and perhaps hoping that something similar will not happen on his watch.

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